A look at major issues at session's halfway point

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Associated Press

Posted on April 24, 2012 at 6:56 AM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 24 at 6:56 AM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's lawmakers have six weeks remaining in the regular legislative session. More than 1,900 bills have been filed for consideration. A look at where some of the issues stand, with the session slated to end June 4:

BUDGET: The governor's $25.5 billion budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year awaits action in the House Appropriations Committee, which is awaiting the latest income projections and trying to determine how much deeper lawmakers will need to cut to balance the spending plans. Revenue is expected to fall below current estimates, and the Jindal administration assumed certain savings from retirement bills that won't be reached.

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EDUCATION: Gov. Bobby Jindal won passage of an historic overhaul of public education in Louisiana. The changes will make it harder for teachers to gain tenure while establishing a statewide voucher program for private school tuition and multiplying the ways to create charter schools. The bills also lessen local school board authority in hiring and firing decisions and expand online schools. Critics promised lawsuits. Parents and teachers may notice few immediate changes to the education system in the upcoming 2012-13 school year. Vouchers will be available to an estimated 2,000 new students to attend private schools with public tax dollars in the fall; the program is expected to grow in later years. New charter schools will take at least a year to get through the application and approval process. The earliest a teacher can lose tenure under the new evaluation system is spring 2014.

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RETIREMENT: The governor's proposals to push back the retirement age for 50,000 rank-and-file state workers and public college employees and to charge them more for their pensions await debate on the Senate floor. One measure would increase the amount state employees pay toward their retirement from 8 percent of their salary to 11 percent. Another bill would require employees to work longer to get their full retirement benefits, to as much as 67 years old, depending on how many years they've been in the system and their current age. Other proposals would make it much tougher for retirement systems to pass cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and would calculate the monthly retirement payment on an employee's top five years of salary instead of three years. Awaiting debate in the House is a Jindal-backed proposal to create a cheaper investment account similar to a 401(k) plan for state employees hired after July 1, 2013, instead of a monthly retirement payment based on their salaries. Opponents who argue some of the measures are unconstitutional have pledged court challenges.

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GUN LIMITS: A proposal to rewrite the state's constitutional protections for gun and weapon owners so that it would be harder to restrict the use of firearms has received Senate passage and awaits debate in a House committee. Critics say the change could nullify most of the state's gun limits and open the door to guns in schools, bars and churches. But there was little opposition in the Senate to the proposal backed by the National Rifle Association.

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TAX BREAKS: The state's economic development chief would be able to offer a package of new tax breaks to businesses that are considering whether to relocate or expand in Louisiana, under a proposal overwhelmingly approved by the House and awaiting debate in the Senate. The bills pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration would let the Department of Economic Development offer increased tax breaks for payroll, relocation costs and corporate income and franchise taxes for certain businesses that the department wants to attract or keep.

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ABORTION: Women who seek an abortion in Louisiana would be asked whether they want to hear the fetal heartbeat, if lawmakers agree to a proposal awaiting debate in the Senate. The requirement would be added to a state mandate that women get an ultrasound before they can have an abortion. Under existing law, women are asked whether they want to view the sonogram and get a photo of the image, and they would be able to opt out of hearing the fetal heartbeat by signing a form saying they don't want to listen.

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OILFIELD CLEANUP: Lawmakers are bogged down in a long-running dispute between oil and gas companies and private landowners about environmental contamination. No proposal reworking how "legacy lawsuits" are handled has advanced out of the House or Senate yet, though more than a dozen are filed.

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PENN STATE ABUSE: Lawmakers are considering whether to make it a felony crime for a person to witness but not report child sexual abuse, a measure filed after allegations of unreported abuse involving a former Penn State University assistant football coach. The Senate has approved the measure, which awaits debate in the House. Also pending in the House and backed by the Senate is a proposal that would give whistleblower protection to people who report child sexual abuse to authorities so they couldn't be fired, suspended or demoted because of the allegations.

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TOPS CHANGES: A near-annual proposal to put a cap on the amount of tuition paid through the TOPS program was rejected. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will cost the state an estimated $168 million in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

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PRISON SALE: The Jindal administration, facing strong opposition to the sale of a central Louisiana state prison, is giving up on the idea but still is pushing to hire a private company to run the facility in Avoyelles Parish. The proposal awaits debate in the House.

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TERM LIMITS: An attempt to put term limits on all statewide elected officials failed. But a House-backed bill that would ask voters in each parish if they want to enact term limits on their local school boards is still moving through the process.

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SEX OFFENDERS: Legislators are considering a new attempt to ban certain sex offenders from Facebook and other social networking websites after the law passed last year was thrown out by a federal judge, who said it was so broad that it would effectively ban sex offenders from any use of the Internet. The new version, backed by the House, would ban a list of sex offenders from websites whose primary purpose is "facilitating social interaction with other users of the website and which allows users to create web pages or profiles about themselves that are available to the public or other users." The prohibition would apply to people convicted of a sex offense against a minor or of video voyeurism.

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SMOKING BAN: Smoking would be prohibited within 25 feet of the entrance to any building where smoking already is banned, if the Senate agrees to a House-backed proposal. It wouldn't apply to places like casinos, bars and private residences, which are exempt from the state's smoking ban.

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ETHICS: The state ethics board would have a limited right to appeal when it loses cases it brings against public officials accused of violating the state ethics code, if senators agree to House-approved changes to the 2008 revamp of Louisiana's ethics laws. Also approved by the House are adjustments to the one-year time limit the Board of Ethics has to file charges after receiving a complaint or voting to investigate a matter, a proposal that would spell out reasons why the time limit can be suspended.

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BULLYING: A Baton Rouge lawmaker withdrew her anti-bullying proposal after the House Education Committee gutted it, taking out any reference to the type of activity that would be banned. The proposal has become an annual flashpoint over the rights of gay students. Bullying of students is prohibited in current Louisiana law, with school boards required to include such bans in student codes of conduct and determine punishment. Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, proposed rewriting the statute to spell out that harassment and intimidation would not be allowed for race, ancestry, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and other listed factors. Opponents said the list would create favored and protected classes of people.

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CELL PHONE BAN: The Louisiana House will debate whether to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Similar proposals have failed in recent years to gain traction with the Legislature. Louisiana currently has a ban on texting while driving and a prohibition on younger drivers using cell phones.

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Online:

Louisiana Legislature: www.legis.la.gov

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